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We Need A Deal, Not War, With The PKK

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] The government is busy these days with the planning of “special units” that will fight the outlawed terrorist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, on the country’s “border areas.” But, alas, the PKK’s recent attacks were all over the county, even in Istanbul. Meanwhile, our “military experts” are speaking on TV, explaining how we should take bolder steps in “the war on terror,” such as military operations in northern Iraq. But, well, haven’t we already tried that, for more than a decade?The irony is that the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government has actually been the bravest one ever with regard to the Kurdish question. Its “Kurdish opening,” started a year ago, was initially promising, but now it seems we are back to square one. We are again talking about the same “military solution” that has proved ineffective – and disastrous, with a death toll of 42,000. How did we get here? A tale of two worlds In a nutshell, the AKP do not go as far as it should have in order to win over the Kurdish nationalists. But it went far enough to enrage the Turkish ones. Let’s look at how this happened. The AKP has been popular among the Kurds from the beginning and received a great election victory in the Kurdish Southeast in 2007. Soon after, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initiated the Kurdish opening, which rested on two legs. The first was to win more Kurdish hearts and minds through reforms and gestures on cultural rights, such as starting a 24-hour official TV channel in Kurdish or allowing Kurdish institutes to be formed in universities. The second – and more fragile – leg of the “opening” was the disarmament of the PKK. The government apparently engaged in a covert dialogue with the organization, and hence came the “Habur affair.” This started when about a dozen PKK members came down from the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq, a military base of the organization, and entered Turkish territory from the Habur border gate. These unarmed but uniformed men were briefly questioned by officials, who were willing to let them go, and were then greeted by thousands of relatives and fans. When they reached Diyarbakır, hundreds of thousands welcomed them with fanfare. For these Kurds, their victorious fighters had returned with a victory. For the rest of Turkey, though, this proved to be shocking and enraging. The county has sacrificed more than 7,000 soldiers to the war on the PKK. The “concession to terrorists” was utterly unacceptable to these “martyr families,” and the millions who share their feelings. Protests grew, and public support for the AKP, according to polls, dropped to its lowest point ever. Hence, new “Habur affairs” proved to be impossible. For worse, soon, the PKK restarted violence. (Some think in collaboration with the “deep state,” which was happy to have the war going and see the AKP fail.) The government reacted by cracking down on the Kurdish Communities Union, or KCK, the alleged urban wing of the terrorist organization. Even dozens of elected mayors in the Southeast were arrested by the police, which was clearly a mistake. The PKK responded with more violence, and that is how we got here. What really happened, I guess, was that in the aftermath of the “Habur affair,” the AKP realized that making a deal with the PKK is simply not acceptable for the majority of Turkish society. So it wanted to proceed only with the first leg of the “Kurdish opening” (i.e., cultural rights), by excluding, and even cracking down on, the PKK. But this plan obviously did not work. The PKK simply does not allow anybody to “solve the Kurdish question” without accepting it as a partner. That is too bad, but it is also a reality. The wishful plans for “winning the Kurds while defeating the PKK” do not help much, because the PKK has many fanatical supporters among the Kurds that we want to win. Its political parties routinely get 5 percent of the votes in every election. There is no way to uproot such a popularly rooted terrorist organization. Sabotaging peace Thus, the only way out of Turkey’s decades-old nightmare seems to be a deal with the PKK, perhaps a bit similar to the one the British government made with the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, in the late 9190s. Such a deal should preserve the “indivisible unity” of Turkey, but also introduce de-centralization and multiculturalism, which are anathema to the Kemalist mind, but quite familiar to an Ottoman one. It should, to the pain of many, also open a way for today’s terrorists to become tomorrow’s politicians. The AKP is the closest among Turkish political parties to being able to pull off such a gigantic “Kurdish opening.” But it can’t go that way when there is less than a year to general elections and the PKK is on a rampage. (By the way, the PKK probably does this to make the AKP lose the elections. Erdoğan’s party, after all, is its only rival among the Kurds.) So, things do not look very promising. But my California-based academic friend Aleda Elsu was still hopeful when I talked to her the other day about all this. “It is only normal for extremists to sabotage peace,” she said, “especially at times when there is a better hope for peace.” The only problem is that the “extremists” in this case are almost the mainstream on both sides. And none of them are willing to change much.
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